Language

The following essay was written for my English 404 Creative Nonfiction class and was inspired by Ocean Vuong’s “Surrendering”

Language
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I have told this story it seems a million times. A nun, my teacher in the second grade, told my parents at a parent-teacher conference that they needed to stop speaking Spanish to me or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to progress in school. “This is America, and in America, we speak English,” I remember her telling them. By the eighth grade, I could barely speak a word of Spanish. It was the America of the fifties, and the nun won. I was now an American. Well, not probably in their minds, but I was at least trying to be one of them.

And that’s too bad because then, being American was anyone other than a nice white Anglo-Saxon protestant. Even Catholics were not allowed as long as they stuck to their side of town. And no Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Negroes (term of the time), and we won’t even talk about those Chinese who should have known better, according to red-blooded Americans back then, Hell, they had their own towns.

Those red-blooded Americans thought it was okay that we could live here in the United States of America as long as we spoke English. Funny, they seemed okay with European immigrants speaking Italian, German, and even French (so continental) and Spanish as from Spain (so Castilian). The problem had something to do with those darker people speaking their language. Weird.

Language
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So there I was stuck in this twilight world of wanting to be an American and yet unable to speak Spanish, which made it difficult if not impossible to talk to many of my closest relatives, including my grandmothers, who knew next to nothing of English because it was not their native language. And my mother, in her early years, still had struggles with the language, although, with time, she became more fluent. Even with that, I wish I could have asked her and my father questions about their lives in their home countries in the language that I knew they were the most comfortable with so they could tell me stories in that language in all its beauty and specificity that just could not be captured by the English language.

I went on to be an excellent reader and speaker of English, although since I was from the Bronx, some people might debate the excellence of the speaking part. I read books and Boys Life magazine, watched American English television, learned how they spoke, and thought of myself just like them. I never once felt that I was anything but just like them, an English language-speaking American at that young age. And that’s the way it’s been all my life.

Now, I wish in frustration that I had paid more attention in Mrs. Travieso’s Spanish class, “You speak Spanish with an American accent.” I knew she meant to add, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” She didn’t have to say it; I felt it. WTF. I imagine, for a second, that if I had kept my Spanish, and been bilingual, the stories I would have read, the stories I would have heard, the added dimension of life I would have experienced. Damn.

Language
Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay

This while thing about to be an American, you must only speak English has messed with my head over the years. Yes, I’ve tried to learn Spanish to explore this other dimension of my life, my family’s life, and their history. When I try to speak the few words that I know, I tighten up, embarrassed with my pronunciation, the accent that Ms. Travieso complained about would make people look at me and say, “¿Que eres un gringo?”

I was so committed to being an English-only speaking American that, in all honesty, there were times in my life I was ashamed when someone would try to speak Spanish to me because somehow they assumed that I spoke the language and I would have different reactions. If they were a native Spanish speaker, I would hesitantly tell them No comprende or No habla Espanol in the worst English accented Spanish that I could muster. You were right, Miss Travieso. If the person was native English speaking and I thought they were trying to make some lousy attempt at shaming me like I wasn’t American enough because they thought I didn’t speak English. I would pause, look them in the eyes and say indignantly; I speak English. I didn’t add, but I desperately wanted to say I probably speak better English than you.

I love listening to people who can seamlessly move between languages. Even better, more than two languages. There’s a skill, a rolling of the lips and tongue, the hand gestures that come with each language. Some stories are best told in their native tongue. The music of that language. The cultural history. The depth of meaning.

Language
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Something magical happens when you are awash in the symbolism and specificity of each word and how it’s pronounced. It happens in English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Arabic, hell, any of the thousands of languages that people in America, Americans all of them, speak at home, at school, in stores, on sidewalks, and in the subway. Hell, turn on your radio, television, or podcast. It’s all there, the whole world speaking to us in over seven thousand languages, and some people, okay, a lot of English-speaking Americans, get upset when they hear someone speaking another language. OMG, why is it any of your fuckin’ business?

I secretly dream that I can understand them (I’m a busybody), not so I can share their secrets but because I want to go up to them and ask them about their language, culture, history, and countries of origin. And if they were born in America, I want to know how and why they retained their parent’s native tongue because I would be jealous as hell if they told me, “Well, we just spoke our language because it is beautiful, and it is the way we share our lives.” Yeah, that should be a good enough reason for me and any other American if it was our business.

1968 A Year of Living Violently

The following essay was submitted as my final project for English 404 Creative Nonfiction Spring 2022.

In 1968, I was nineteen, living in the Bronx. I couldn’t feel how deep was the water around me or know I would almost drown in it. My mind and life were mired in an ocean of depression and anxiety. The turmoil was lurking on the horizon. Youth were challenging the world order. War was everywhere, in faraway lands, on American streets, in our souls. The war in Vietnam continued to eat the young even as we protested across this country. The champions of a peaceful revolution were assassinated. Racist forces held their ground against the forward movement of American history. The old voices told us to believe that America was exceptional. Racism, sexism, income disparities, and class warfare were only aberrations. They called us communists, rabble-rousers, and traitors. According to them, we were the real danger to America. They sicced police violence down on us. Bodies and blood flowed like a flash flood across America’s urban landscape. I battled for survival inside the cyclone, where my life would be defined by two lies: a “normal” life during the day and a dope fiend at night.

It was not what I dreamed 
when I was a kid 
looking into the future 
or what my mother and father 
had wished. 

Amid the violent chaos, 
a quiet but deadly menace 
stalked the Bronx. 
Its campaign for death
swept me up. 
1968
Manhattan Beach, CA Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I pushed back against the waves of depression with long subway rides from the South Bronx to Greenwich Village to seek camaraderie with other anti-war compatriots. There were the secret Thursday shopping excursions into Manhattan with my girlfriend Chicky, who hid the relationship from her family. We swore we were in love. The Fridays with my boys at Saint Anselm Catholic Youth Organization. We would shoot hoops and pool and then run off to Carlos’s basement apartment to smoke weed and listen to Red Foxx and Moms Mabley comedy albums. However, despite my worst efforts, my life was besieged by a growing heroin habit, the petty crimes to feed it, and the inevitable drug overdoses. I was scared, confused, and angry, and sure I would be doomed to six feet under.

In the dope world,
everyone lies and cheats. 
It’s the bargain with the devil. 
Heroin
imported from some foreign country 
smuggled across thousands of miles 
hidden in suitcase bottoms 
to apartments full of naked women 
mixing it with baby milk powder 
or rat poison 
into a glassine bag 
so you can buy 
from a man with no name 
in some dark hidden hallway.
1968
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I was old enough to go to Vietnam, but I wasn’t ready to die in a faraway land. So, I bluffed my way out with a military service deferment only in a war or national emergency. But, the powers in Washington, D.C. couldn’t or wouldn’t admit there was a war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, my friends were disappearing from the hood—drafted to become the wounded and dead bodies that kept piling up in field hospitals and black bags 8,637 miles away. Young people, the fodder for the war machine, lost faith in the Vietnam conflict and the illusion that America was exceptional. At home, another battle raged on between my father and me. Even as the bleak reality of the war filled the evening newscasts and newspaper headlines every day, my father declared America was winning. I only saw death and hopelessness. In protest, I burned my draft card at a UN rally.

Abandoned apartments 
became shooting galleries 
like the one
off Willis Avenue 
where a violent moment, 
a drug overdose, 
played out 
like a bad crime movie 
that would not stop.
  
It was my daily dance with mainline, 
straight into the central vein. 
Slumped in a broken down 
upholstered chair
that had seen a more peaceful, 
relaxing time.
My hands smeared 
with pain and blood, 
surrounded by the smell 
of alcohol, weed,
a grease-stained brown shopping bag, 
a trail of dead food, 
half-empty beer cans,
and desperate dreams.
1968
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

It was the year of cities burning. New York, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C. I wanted to join the urban guerrillas committed to tearing it all down. I was no longer willing to sit on the sidelines watching televised pandemonium. I left a Wall Street trading job to enlist in the South Bronx social justice army to battle over community control of public schools. The New York City Teachers’ Union closed the city schools against community control, the largest strike in the city’s history. Community groups, parents, and teacher allies vowed to battle the union and the Central Board of Education in the streets and schools. The days were filled with marches, school board meeting takeovers, and Black and Latino parent mobilization to fight for local control.

There is a ritual.
There is always a ritual 
when preparing 
for the violent death
that is sure to come.
 
Don’t worry about sterile. 
Ignore the dirt on the stairs
to the apartment, 
the old blood dripping down its walls, 
or the smell you swear is 
“Man, did someone shit up in here?” 
This is not Good Housekeeping certified.
1968
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The cops lined up military-style in a straight-line shoulder to shoulder on that Friday, September 13, in front of JHS 52, with their shiny badges and nice crisp uniforms. Their police hats tipped just right on their lovely crew-cut white heads. Their job was to keep the threatening hordes of black and brown mothers and their children from conjuring up a new life and future beyond the South Bronx and public housing and run-down tenement buildings. The parents were there to open the school for their kids. They could pledge allegiance to the flag, grow up to be successful Americans, and move to New Jersey, Long Island, New Rochelle, or Connecticut. It could happen. It’s the American Dream. Instead, they were destined to work low-paying jobs. You could find them at the greasy spoon in El Barrio, shuffling clothes racks down 7th Avenue or sorting through boxes of vegetables at the Hunts Point Market. 

Mainlining, 
injecting directly into my vein 
was the only way 
to enjoy the fruits of the opium poppy. 
I pulled out the eyedropper
 and a small needle 
ready to shove heroin
Smack, H, Chiba, Junk, Skag, Dope 
 into my body.

An old bottle of murky water 
the rusting bottle cap 
on an equally rusting coffee table
leftover from the last fool 
who overdosed while 
crying for his mommy, 
“Don’t take this ride on the mainline home.”

I’m choking from the stink 
that’s floating around me. 
I needed to get high 
with my last five dollars 
until payday Friday.

The police megaphone announced there would be no trespassing that day. Not on their watch. The spotlight turned onto one constable, a defender of the social order, the vanguard against disorder. A young, fresh-faced stalwart for a way of life, an ax handle in his hand. This ax handle, typically 32 to 36 inches long, was not the usual official policeman’s nightstick. The longer ones worked best for big timber and splitting wood. The shorter lengths were superior for smaller timber and general utility work. The latter was also best for beating those black and brown people who thought they could trespass onto public property as if they were taxpayers. On this day, the American Dream turned into an American nightmare. The one defender of the social order would use that ax handle as he saw in those news reports from the south. They knew how to use the ax handle properly. Swing and never miss.

Into the bottle cap 
I so carefully squeezed 
one, two, three drops 
of unclean water.

The water slowly mixed 
with the off-white specks of heroin. 
Cooked it with a match 
underneath the cap 
until it blends into a muddy liquid.
1968
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The picture in front of me was vivid, living in my nightmares for years into the future. Swing baby, crush some heads, some Friday daydreams. Swing that ax handle like it’s 1968. The angry spittle foamed from his face and those of his comrades. The message was clear. The ax handle would crash through some heads and bodies to teach them a lesson. “Don’t fuck with us. We’re the man. We are the power.” No amount of black and brown mothers with their innocent children at their sides could stop them. Not one. It was madness run amuck. They went after the first black guy they saw, swearing that he was the Black Panther Party. As if they all looked alike. Brown hands reached out to stop the arrest. Nightsticks and the ax handle blocked the charging crowd. I grabbed a blue uniform. A club and an arm then wrapped around my throat choking me. My eyeglasses crashed onto the sidewalk. My breath escaped from my lungs. Two arms became four become six as I was lifted and hauled to a waiting police car.

My belt wrapped around my upper arm 
looked for the central vein 
that cried for the high.
 
And the muddy water sucked up 
through the thin needle
from the rusting bottle cap 
through the weeks old cotton ball 
up into the eyedropper 
back down through the needle 
and down I plunged 
and the rush of warmth
that turned to panic
while my soul was
falling and falling and falling.
 
And I realized
this is not a trip home or into paradise.
No one would save me here.
1968
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Those guardians of society proved they would do anything to protect their American Dream. The war for social justice continues until this day.

Suddenly, I was falling out 
out of the apartment
down broken stairs
spilling out into the street
cursing 
where I heard heavenly music 
crashing with the sounds of sirens, 
imagining 
what my father would later call me 
in the emergency room,
desagradecido,
ungrateful.
 
I’m shrieking, 
I’m alive,
I’m alive. 
%d bloggers like this: